A Civil War-era letter from an officer in the Confederate Walton Guard to his father in Pensacola, recently obtained by Parker Destin, is one of the few direct links to the story of the Destin family in Florida, and to local history.
DESTIN — Appearing timed to his heartbeat, the large piece of blue-tinged paper flutters in Parker Destin’s upturned hands, giving a semblance of life to the old script flowing across it.
Like the handwritten script, the fold marks alternately indented and raised across the letter also provide a clue to its age. And there, in the upper right corner, is a date: Aug. 11, 1861.
Written by then-19-year-old Lt. H.T. Wright of the Confederate Walton Guard while he was stationed at Camp Walton (present-day Fort Walton Landing), the letter to his father in Pensacola provides a fleeting but tangible look into the Civil War in Florida.
And coincidentally, it provides a brief peek into the life of Parker Destin’s great- great- great-grandfather, Leonard, for whom the city of Destin is named.
“This is a really, really neat letter that we’ve been able to bring back, and it seems to be the only bit of primary source documentation that discusses what was actually occurring in Fort Walton Beach at Camp Walton and in Destin — (then) East Pass — during the time of the Civil War,” Parker Destin said.
“Contrary to our expectation, we have seen no Yankees yet, and consequently we have had no fight,” Wright tells his father in the letter, which also goes on to discuss a land deal in which the young Wright was involved, along with other details about life at Camp Walton.
According to Destin, the Walton Guard was positioned at Camp Walton to monitor Union warships plying the Gulf of Mexico and prevent them from using Santa Rosa Sound as a “back door“ for an attack on Pensacola.
Some days after the letter was written, the Walton Guard was fired upon by the USS Waterwitch, a Union warship. After rendering their cannons inoperable and burying them, the Walton Guard fled to Pensacola. The cannons were unearthed some years ago, and now are on display at the Indian Temple Mound Museum in Fort Walton Beach.
The letter, which Destin obtained from a Civil War document dealer in Jacksonville, shrinks the six generations of temporal distance between Parker Destin and his great- great- great-grandfather, albeit with a historically inaccurate twist.
“Our captain received orders from headquarters to move Captain Len, alias Destin, who is suspected to have carried on trade with the enemy from East Pass,” Parker Destin, standing in the kitchen of his Destin home in the shadow of Leonard Destin’s 1800s homestead, read from the letter on a recent morning.
According to Destin, Wright may have been one of the Walton Guard troops who watched suspiciously as Leonard Destin, a fisherman who had come to the Gulf of Mexico from his native Connecticut years before the Civil War, rowed out to the USS Waterwitch.
However, as the Waterwitch’s records would later show, Destin had rowed out to the Union ship to demand that items taken from his home by Union troops — including his fishing sloop, a coffee grinder and a shotgun — be returned. The items were taken after Destin and his family fled their home as gunboats from the Waterwitch began firing on the land during a training exercise and some Union troops came ashore.
All of the items, with the exception of the shotgun, were returned to Leonard Destin, prompting Parker and his father to joke that maybe they should petition the federal government for return of the weapon.
Regardless of the facts surrounding his visit to the Waterwitch, Leonard Destin nonetheless was detained by Confederate troops near Freeport for “six to eight months,” Parker Destin said, until those troops were directed toward Tennessee. Leonard Destin returned to East Pass sometime in 1862, his great- great- great-grandson said.
It’s unclear exactly where Wright’s letter wound up after it was presumably delivered to his father. Word of its existence had, however, been circulating among history buffs including Parker Destin, his father Dewey, and another local historian, Hank Klein.
Recently, Parker Destin said, the letter was tracked to the Civil War collection of amateur Jacksonville historian Dickie Ferry, who acquired it from a historical documents dealer in New Orleans.
As a friend of Parker Destin, Ferry gave the letter to the local amateur historians as a gift, understanding its value to them.
“He said, ’It means a lot to me, but it means everything to you guys,’ ” Parker Destin said.
While Parker Destin will retain possession of the actual letter, he will offer copies of it to the Destin History and Fishing Museum and to area colleges, he said.